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politicians blow a lot of smoke.

“I was fifteen years old, and I was the senior patrol leader of my Boy Scout troop” my father would always start this story. “We waited at the train station, my whole group of scouts, in our uniforms. We got there 4 hours early to get the best spot. We just knew that when he got off of that train, and saw a pack of scouts, all decked out with their sashes and berets, he would come over to us before he stopped to kiss any babies”.

My father was referring to a day that he would never forget, when he met then Republican-nominee for the office of the Presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The proud five-star general did exactly what my father hoped for: he walked up to the pack of Boy Scouts and shook his hand. Eisenhower would go on to be the President of the United States, and my father would get to join the proud minority of people who can say that they have met the President.

I remember being in Elementary School, and one of the toughest bullies was a redheaded boy named Quincy. Quincy had a long resume of reasons for why he was the one doing the pounding and you were the one doing the fearing. He was tall for his age, far more athletic than I, he didn’t have a curfew, played with fireworks, and in the summer of 1992 he had met Bill Clinton. He waved this fact around like it gave him a free pass to do whatever he pleased. “I’ve met the president, have you met the president Nathan?” he would say, with a smirk before cornering me on the playground. I would mention that my father met Dwight Eisenhower, which apparently was not good enough to spare me from the name-calling, and worse yet, having my pants pulled down.

As years passed I accepted I may never get a chance to shake hands with the President of the United States, a realization that was soothed after I got to shake Jon Bon Jovi’s hand in the line of a Starbucks. “Who needs Presidents, I met Bon Jovi!” I would say, clearly lying to myself about how this run-in comes nowhere near meeting a president. I even came from the same state as the man to come after Bill Clinton, a one brilliant and cultured George W. Bush. I began assuming I didn’t run in the same circles as politicians, but perhaps I could bump into a few more 80s rock stars over the years.

Recent weeks of news watching have turned this fortune around, with a new addition to the race for the 2012 Presidential Campaign. A candidate has emerged that I have not only met, but have had a one-hour conversation with. A candidate I have not only shaken hands with, I’ve had a photo taken with. A candidate that filled me with so much misery I vomited in his presence. In the fall of 2004 I met the Governor of Texas, and now Presidential Candidate Rick Perry, in a manner that I feel contains an immense amount of symbolism to why our government is such a hot mess at the moment.

It was October in Texas; a month where the weather finally begins to cool and the sun goes down earlier. It is finally not a death sentence to go outside and have a barbeque, throw the football, or in my case, run a 10k. The 10k I chose to run was in a small town in North-Central Texas called Dublin, just like the city in Ireland. Dublin is famous in Texas lore because in the middle of downtown is the Dr. Pepper Dublin Brewery, the only place on earth where you can acquire a Texas delicacy called a “Dublin Dr. Pepper”. For all non-Texans reading let me quickly catch you up: A Dublin Dr. Pepper is a Dr. Pepper made to the formula specifications in the original late 19th century recipe. It has real cane sugar in it, along with a lot of other delicious things. It is served in 8 ounce bottles, because 12 ounces, 16 ounces, or a liter may give you instant diabetes. They are truly an experience, and to honor their deliciousness an annual 10k is held. It is about as quaint and small-town of a 10k as there is. As you prepare at the starting line, you are introduced to the “Pretty Peggy Peppers”, a dance-squad formed of high school girls to promote Dublin Dr. Pepper. After a 5-minute chat with Peggy #4 I found out it was actually a pretty big honor. Being a Pretty Peggy Pepper came with a long list of obligations, including parades, civic gatherings, and high school pep rallies. In return for these services Dr. Pepper gave her an immense amount of scholarship money. I was suddenly proud of Texas and Dr. Pepper, because I was sure Coke or Pepsi would never think of having such a thing. Before the race started I asked Peggy what Dr. Pepper’s PhD was actually in, a joke that went straight over her head. She must not have picked that college to use the scholarship at quite yet.

As I began running the 10k, I heard a mass of whoops and screams behind me in the pack, screams that intensified even louder as they seemed to be directly behind me. I was then quickly passed on my left by a tall man in his 40s, with bouncy, resilient hair and sunglasses on. Soon after he passed me a Green tractor whooshed around us, with 2 men dangling off the back in suits with earpieces in. It was the most confusing sight I had ever seen, I didn’t think anybody in Dublin, Texas even owned a suit, let alone would wear it while dangling off of the back of a tractor. A random woman in the crowd screamed “I love you Governor Perry!” and the man next to me with the flowing hair and sunglasses replied back “thank you, God Bless!” It all made sense now. I was in a neck and neck race with the Governor of Texas.

The tractor was carrying the Governor’s two bodyguards, and a photographer as well who I couldn’t see before. The two men sat on the back of the tractor, emotionless, looking over the Governor’s shoulders and occasionally checking up on me. I will go to the grave when I tell this story to remind everyone that I was not trying to hang with the governor just to get in the newspaper, but that we were running at the exact same pace. We then commenced the most awkward conversation you will ever have with a moderately significant politician. I would imagine it was worse for him than it was for me. Politicians are used to getting in and out, they want to get to know you in 14.2 seconds and move on to the next person to shake hands with and ask for their vote. Governor Perry was stuck with my sweaty ass for the next 45 minutes, a small-town Texas purgatory of discussion. He asked me where I went to college, and when I replied “LSU” he asked why I didn’t want to be a Longhorn, Aggie or Mustang. When he asked if I planned on returning to Texas after college, and I promptly said “no”, he looked at his watch, frustrated and dejected that he hadn’t chosen to run next to a gun-shooting, flag-waving, steak-consuming Texan. Every time I gave a response that alluded to having a lack of loyalty to Texas, the two bodyguards squinted at me even harder. I imagined they had already sent my photos to the Texas Rangers, and that Chuck Norris was in an office somewhere in Austin making sure I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t loud or disrespectful, but I also wasn’t going to kiss his ass, and by sitting right between these two extremes I drove him absolutely nuts.

The conversation was getting harder for me to have for an entirely different reason. While the governor had a perfectly clear path before him, I was running straight into the back of his tractor-detail, complete with all of the exhaust and fumes going straight into my mouth and nose. I huffed and puffed, pleading in my head for the tractor to move. I thought about falling back in the pack to get some fresh air, but how often do you get to say you are running alongside the Governor of Texas? I couldn’t give up now, because in so many ways Rick Perry would win if I did. He would win because the Texas-defector is a wimp. He would win because the annoying 20-year-old democrat running alongside him couldn’t handle some fumes. He would win in the sense that we were indeed running a 10k, something my competitive instincts couldn’t think about.

A mile later the tractor fumes were beginning to turn me all kinds of unnatural colors. My exhausted body craved air, and all of it got were the same emissions that I’m sure he didn’t give two shits about as a Republican governor. Finally, with only 2 more miles to go, I stumbled off of the course and puked my brains out into a cow pasture. The governor didn’t even notice, but his two bodyguards did, as they looked relieved that I was no longer running alongside their prized possession.

I ended up finishing the Dublin Dr. Pepper 10k in last place. After commencing vomiting I tried to run again and stepped in a pothole, twisting my ankle. I limped across the finish line, still feeling queasy and truly despising Governor Perry. “If the governor of Texas has to have bodyguards, why can’t they just run the race too?” I thought to myself. As I was stumbling into the car, I heard my father yelling for me from across the parking lot. “Nate, come here, the Governor of Texas is here, you can get your picture with him!” I looked at the ground, again nauseated. I painfully winced instead of smiling with the Governor, trying not to say anything I may regret if I ever choose to run for office. My dad put his arm around me, as we walked back to the car: “He could be president one day, think of what this photo would mean then!”

As I think back on that day, I can’t help but see many parallels between my run with the Governor and the relationship that regular Americans have with their politicians. Rick Perry did not want for me to ingest lethal doses of vehicle exhaust, it was just the collateral damage of running alongside a politician. When politicians actually show their faces in public, it is such an event that they don’t even resemble human beings anymore. They are just pawns, being forced into mascot roles for the ideologies of those around them. Rick Perry is not an evil person, all of the conservative ya-hoos that pay for his advertising are. As we ran that day, Rick Perry didn’t know how to discuss things with me because I was deliberately not playing the role of “obnoxious Liberal” or “stone-cold Conservative”. This is because sanity lives in the middle ground. Our government has become about as efficient as a turtle running a delivery service, and the reason why is that our government is being run by the most polarized, over the top representations of left and right you could find. Of course you will have deadlock and fighting when you put a Bible thumping square in the same room with a Lesbian, drug-using, Union representative. Regular Americans aren’t this polarized, so why should our politics be? If this were the case maybe we could actually fix the real issues, not waste time arguing about abortion and gay marriage.

So it turns out I may have what I lacked as a child, my very own “when I met the president story”. I frankly hope it doesn’t come down to that, because that would mean Rick Perry became president, and I would have to relocate to an island somewhere in the Pacific to remain sane. I guess if it came down to him and Michelle Bachmann, I’d have to send my best hopes to Governor Perry. Michelle Bachmann may actually be a demon sent to kill us all.    

 

where everybody knows your name.

I love coffee, this is no secret to the general public. I truly live on the stuff: if you were to cut me open to perform an emergency blood transfusion you better have 3 pints of Sumatra in those little plastic hospital bags. My addiction with coffee started slow, along with the “shove chocolate in a cup, charge 5 dollars and call it coffee” movement of the late 1990s. When you were in high school, taking a girl on a “coffee date” rather than a “burger date” meant you were sophisticated, interested in deep conversation and swapping intellectual banter. Burger dates were a prerequisite to second base in the back seat of a 1994 Saturn, while coffee shop dates were where relationships started.

My love affair with coffee intensified when I went to college and fell in love with a coffee shop directly behind the music building. It was the perfect place, with Christmas lights up year-round, local art on the walls, and a large patio with a cobblestone walkway. Much like high school, it was where you took a promising first date, as opposed to the bar on the corner with the all-Bon Jovi juke box, 5 dollar pitchers, and a graffiti’d restroom that stank like the latrines at Scout camp. At this coffee shop, I got my first taste of what it meant to be a “regular”, a customer so consistent and loyal that the baristas know your name, what you drink, and what flirting works for a good tip. This sensation got them a lot of business from me, I loved all of the whimsy and romance that came with being a regular at a locally-owed coffee shop. All I needed was a massive dog or a single-speed bicycle, and I’m sure they would have stopped charging me for drinks.

The older I got the stouter my coffee got, making the frappa-kappa-whippa-choco-minty-chinos from high school look like an insult to the coffee business. By the time I was graduating from college I was drinking the darkest coffee a shop could offer, only with a splash of cream. I insisted on a dark, caramel khaki color for the utmost drinkability. I had become THAT coffee snob, the elitist jackass that rambles about fair trade products, air-lock canisters, and the oil content of his beans.  When I moved to Wisconsin for graduate school I immediately latched onto a coffee shop that provided this level of  high-brow caucasian satiation, a local shop that roasted all of their fair-trade coffee in-house. My loyalty to this coffee shop was extreme compared to my shop in college, sometimes resulting in 3 or 4 trips a day to this wonderful establishment. The baristas here knew my entire life story, and instead of asking the customary “how is your day?”, they would ask me detailed questions about my job, or recent dates I had been on. I truly did feel like a character on “Cheers”: not only did everybody know my name, they knew my everything. For Halloween a few years back a friend of mine decided to go as me for Halloween, and the most obvious accessory to his costume was a coffee cup, glued to his hand the entire evening.

After I finished graduate school I got a sleek corporate job, complete with daily suit-wearing and a downtown office in a high-rise. Luckily for me, my favorite coffee shop also had a location downtown, so my habit could continue uninterrupted. It became my refuge from a brutal office atmosphere, a place where the smile was more important than the coffee half the time. It didn’t take me long to realize no amount of coffee could make me happy in this new lifestyle.

When you realize something profound in your life isn’t a good fit, you tend to seek the most polarizing opposite to fill that void. When someone gets trampled on by a witty brunette, a terse and dry blonde is usually the natural replacement. If someone pukes up under-cooked Indian food, they will usually crave a salad the next day. My natural replacement to budget meetings, loafer-wearing, and spreadsheets epitomized this idea. I became a middle school teacher at an urban public school in Texas. To many people this shift in careers was baffling, but to me it fit like a glove. As I began teaching I realized how great of a fit it was: all of the nonsense and hoop-jumping was replaced with innocent children, inspiration, and a good use of my off-kilter sense of humor. The only thing I had not found a proper replacement for in Texas was my coffee habit. It wasn’t that there were a lack of coffee shops in Austin: a town as tree-hugging and Birkenstock wearing as this certainly loves its local coffee. If I learned anything from my relationship with coffee, it is that it has to fit every crevice of your lifestyle. There is coffee for the finer moments, and there is coffee for rolling up your sleeves and getting it done. One morning the absurdly early “teacher hours” were getting to me, so I reluctantly stumbled into the 7-11 across the street from my school. As I walked in the door I was greeted by Joe, a sincere fellow in his 70s wearing a red button down that fit him well. I also met Ignacio and Maria, his two assistants in convenience store operation. At 6:15 in the morning, I was the only lone soul in this 7-11, so the three of them dedicated all of their energy to my experience. I poured my coffee myself, a new experience for a former customer of a high-end establishment. I then paid Joe, and received from him the most sincere smile I have ever felt.

I went back to that 7-11 the next day, and the day after that, until it became the perfect replacement to my coffee shop habit. If this new chapter of my life was an intentional polar opposite for my last, replacing my fair trade yuppie coffee experience with a gas station made perfect sense. The coffee is hot, it tastes just fine, and every morning I get to expand upon a friendship with three wonderful people I would have never otherwise. There is something oddly satisfying about getting your morning coffee at a gas station. I look to my left and right as I pour my cream and retrieve my lid. To my left is a carpenter. with calloused fingers and dust on his jeans. To my right is a maid, ready for the day with her apron already on. I stand in between them, a public school teacher, finally feeling like I’ve earned my morning brew.

return to the footbridge.

You look just like you did when I was a boy.

Flanked by Christmas lights on both sides, you glow, comforting me in the most cavernous depths of my heart. Just like I remember, you sit alone in a city park, begging for intimacy and companionship, anyone to keep you company in a grey December night.

I am much older now, and I still believe in all of the things we shared. It is harder these days: my mature mind attempts to filter out anything abstract or remotely whimsical. With you I was capable of dreaming far deeper than wishes for a better career, nicer things, or a more suitable lover. We all have these dreams occasionally, the trivial musings of adults never content with what is before them. In our dreams, weeping willows were long-limbed, brilliant old women with reassuring smiles. Flipping a coin into a pond with you revealed uncontrollable potential, and potent capability, only visible to us. Dreaming lives in innocence, and even the most well-to-do of us lose that at some point.

How do we lose our innocence? What brings on the day when nothing lives at face value, people lose their trust in one another, and everything becomes so complicated? By the time we truly do fall in love, ten, maybe twenty years later, we become blind to the beauty that comes from innocence. We forget how to count freckles that orbit someone’s eyelids. We forget the deep satisfaction of smiling, staring, gazing at another person with no intention of murmuring a sound. When we are innocent, we embrace the shards of wheat stuck in our hair from hours of cloud gazing. Now we insist on being perfect, at least what we think is perfect.

You have somehow not lost your innocence. It remains untouched, all details permanently locked, like a creature in a thick syrup of amber. Perhaps it is that people are incapable of holding onto their innocence, but you have kept yours because you are not a person at all. You are a footbridge, a simple wooden one with white handrails and archways at either side. Returning to you is a return to innocence, at least the feeling of what it once was. With your boards beneath my feet I am able to look back, holding onto those last fibers that still know how to dream.

I don’t want to be innocent again, I have learned so much and love the life that I live. But to look to my past, to a boy fearless of everything but himself, a boy that found it easier to dream about tomorrows than ever dwell on the grey clouds of the todays. I am now here, in that tomorrow, and I wish that boy was standing next to me here so he could see for himself. I am living that whimsical dream he crafted, a world where impossible does not exist. Innocence is only that: a blueprint for how to never stop believing.

I throw a coin into the pond beneath you, and I watch the ripples that pour out from the crater in the placid surface. The vibrations reach farther and farther, like broad arms into the infinite.

 

until then.

Every year I think I have a favorite Christmas song, and then every year it changes.

It’s not that the music changes, these songs come and go on the radio each November and December, pulsating through shopping malls and city parks. They craft an idealistic perfection for us to step into, like a picture-print by Courier and Ives. Gooey strings and warm voices float over us, just like the food and beverages ease through our bodies.

If it’s not the music that changes, it has to be us that change. We enter each holiday a different person than we were a year before. We are hopefully smarter, richer, more thoughtful, and of course, happier than we were 365 days prior. I have entered this holiday season filled with a very different slate of emotions. I have endured the biggest transition of my life, going from Midwesterner with a desk job to Texan with hundreds of children chasing me around all day. I love what I do, I’m thankful for each moment and every child I teach. The only problem has been balance, learning how to still be myself in the evenings and weekends, doing the things that make me the person I enjoy being. I knew this transition would take time, and it turns out it is going to take more time than I originally anticipated. In two weeks it will be Christmas, and as I look at my life in many ways I’m still living out of cardboard boxes. I’m still shuffling furniture, trying to discover the perfect spot for my nightstand. I still haven’t found a cup of morning coffee that quite suits my needs like ones in previous towns. I arise every morning optimistically hoping for something concrete, feeling like I’m on the cusp of a truly profound definition in my life. When I crawl into bed, searching for a nightstand that is in the wrong spot, I know that I’m not there yet. I still can’t help but be thankful though, even in months of uncertainty, adjustment, and growth. I still live a truly blessed life.

Before I said that the music doesn’t change. There is one song that has changed over the years, and I frankly think it was better off in its original version. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was originally composed for the 1944 musical film “Meet me in Saint Louis”. The original context of the song was that the father of the family has taken a new job in New York, and the family will soon have to pack up and move there, leaving friends, loves, and most devastatingly, the 1904 World’s Fair. Esther, portrayed by Judy Garland, was originally supposed to sing:

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last,

Next year we will all be living in the past.

I certainly agree, this may have been too depressing, even for a song that was supposed to be sad. Hugh Martin reluctantly changed all of the lyrics, except one, which he insisted on leaving. The line that many of us now know as “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” was originally supposed to be “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”. This change was not made until 1957, when Frank Sinatra begged Martin to change the lyric for his Christmas album.

As much stock as I put in the Church of Frank Sinatra, this to me was the most poignant lyric, the moment in the song that uses all of that anxiety and worry to really make a statement about the human condition. Look at the lyrics before the changed line:

Some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.

First of all, hanging an ornament on a high tree branch hardly seems like the kind of thing one would want to do after realizing that there is a certain lack of togetherness. The line is hopeful and cautiously optimistic, knowing that all decisions must be run through the coffee filter that is fate. Instead, pair the two original lines together:

Some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

This is what makes this song so incredible; that the emotion, the action, the feeling of “muddling” can be so beautiful. Very few of us have it all together, those random, always changing components to our lives that we require to be happy. It is only when fate allows us to be synchronized in a worldly harmony that we do truly all get to be together. This song is not about joy, it is about prospective joy. Prospective joy is even more beautiful than the real thing, because it lives in our hearts, minds, and imaginations. So much of Christmas lives in these places, locations where nothing, not even reality, can take it away. I am incomplete, flawed, a true work in progress. But I know that some day soon my world will come together, if the fates allow. Until then, I’ll have to muddle through somehow. Regardless of this, I am going to be thankful, and do my best to have a merry little Christmas now.

a loyal farewell (not farwell, that’s the street).

As many of you know, today is the last day I can refer to myself as a Milwaukeean, a term I have worn as a badge of honor for three great years. Tomorrow I will get in my trusty box-mobile and drive across the country to Austin, Texas, where I will begin a long-awaited plunge into the world of teaching music in the public schools. As much as I am going to miss my life in Wisconsin, you have no idea how excited I am about this next chapter in my life. Even though Austin was not the setting of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and is not according to Wayne “Algonquin for the Good Land”. Despite this I assure all of you, my midwestern friends, that Austin is a spectacular place that you better visit very soon!
I moved to Milwaukee in July of 2007 knowing nothing of what I had gotten myself into. To me Wisconsin was the setting of “Step by Step”, the place where the Green Bay Packers played, and a city that got a wee bit more snow than the one flurry a year I experienced growing up in Dallas. Perhaps it is those snowstorms I just mentioned, or the local food, which tests every last capability of the human digestive system, but Milwaukee is capable of one powerful thing from the day you show up: it toughens you. I moved to Milwaukee hopeful, idealistic, energetic, and also extremely naive. I moved to Milwaukee only knowing the lollipops and rainbows of music making, not knowing what to do when things get hard. I made friends with people that challenged me in ways I never knew possible, something I will be thankful for the rest of my life. I fell in love with music on an entirely new, deeper level, now realizing that the healthiest relationships on earth are the ones that push you as much as they adore you.
I have also learned in my time here of Milwaukee’s most endearing attribute, one that goes hand-in-hand with its ability to toughen you up: Milwaukee is a loyal city. It’s a city where people care about each other, even if they only see each other each morning waiting for the bus. It is a city that isn’t afraid to look you in your eye when you cheeks are red from tears. It’s a city that will stick by you, even after you make a poor choice, because the best lessons learned are the ones that come from our own error. I have heard people give Milwaukee a hard time, something that I will continue to refute as long as I live away from here. This place’s beauty comes in the rarest of crevices: in the mortar between aging bricks, in the sunflowers that peek between slabs of concrete, in the smile of an old man at a pub. While other cities wait impatiently for you to give back to them, Milwaukee grins and nods, knowing that you’re good for it. This is because the same loyalty that the city emits flows in the blood of every last person I have come in contact with.
There are beautiful parks, wonderful architecture, and flowers in every garden, but the source of Milwaukee’s beauty comes from people. In fact, everything I have said above about this city really applies more to you than anything else. YOU are the force that challenged me. YOU are the presence that stuck by me. YOU are loyalty, beauty, and perfection, just by being a part of my life. The friends I have made here are a crop of people that could not exist anywhere else, and just like this city that we called home, you are irreplaceable. This is the city of Frank the Cannoli Guy, Cowboy with a giant iguana, Dick Bacon, homeless woman that screams all of the time, one-armed bouncers, and also the city of each and every one of you. Sledding down St. Mary’s Hill doesn’t work unless you have somebody to push you, literally and figuratively. Playing air hockey at the Landmark Lanes until 3 in the morning only works when you’re holding that paddle, taunting me and chugging a cold one. Great conversation on a Brady Street patio is only great conversation if you are in that chair next to me. We learn names and dates in school, but we learn what is worth living with each other.
With this I say goodbye. I am a loyal but flawed man that has much to learn about the world, but with 3 years in Milwaukee I feel closer to my destiny than ever before. Thank you for being a force in my life that truly only YOU could do. All of my best,
Nathan

keeping all your ducks in a row.

I’m not a perfectionist, but I’ve always felt that the big moments in life should be pretty flawless. I’ll never be the type to floss thrice daily, or wash the inside of a dishwasher before the dishes are placed within it. At the same time though, I really didn’t want to trip on the stage as I walked at graduation, and I really want to say the correct name when I propose to my future wife one day. I’ve always thought this apathetic perfectionism is one of the many amusing byproducts of mixing my parent’s DNA. My father is an easy-going guy that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and my mom would be completely ok with calling up God if she didn’t think the sky was blue enough one day. I can imagine her in the yard, waggling a bottle of Windex at the heavens above: “It’s ammonia free!”, she would say, “and it really does get the streaks out!”

With the aforementioned information about my momentary bouts of perfectionism, you can only imagine the sudden pragmatic seizure I slung into when I realized that my first kiss was around the corner. In the eyes of a prude, awkward, 14-year-old boy in the marching band, this moment can only be topped by the first time you got asked to a Sadie Hawkins dance, or the first time a flirtatious popular girl cheats off of your history test. My first kiss was so important to me because in my narrow teenage thinking I thought this might be my only stab at gaining the affection of a woman. You wouldn’t blame me for a lack of self-esteem, with my zealous glob of hair gel, sprawling acne that looked like a topography of the Appalachians, denim jean shorts, or worst yet, my instrument in the marching band. I played the second smallest bass drum, which is about as emasculating as having your toenails painted magenta, and having your mom drop you off at the prom all at once. This was only made worse by the fact that the person playing the drum bigger than mine was a five-foot-two Chinese girl who actually played the oboe.

The girl I was so nervous about kissing was Lindsay O’Donnell, a match made somewhere between Heaven and the Waffle House down the street. I knew then as much as I still know now that I lucked out big time in the high school relationship department. She was a year older than me, on the dance team, and a natural redhead. She was a good student and super churchey, so my parents liked her as well. I know people who are in their late 20s and still traumatized by their first girlfriend, so in the broader picture I totally lucked out. During my three months with Lindsay I got cooler glasses, a new haircut, and I quit the denim shorts habit cold turkey. One can only imagine the atrocity that would have happened to me if I arrived in college wearing denim jean shorts. I probably would have become a religious extremist, or a “Dungeons and Dragons” type. I was fourteen years old, dating an older woman, and suddenly sitting on the diameter of the circle that was the in-crowd.

Two months had passed, and my hormones were boiling over the edge like one of those do-it-at-home espresso makers. One thing was clear: kissing this girl had to happen soon. I had never kissed a girl, been kissed by a girl, or fallen in the direction of a girl with my mouth open. I was petrified, and my overplanning instincts immediately kicked in. I devised a systematic plan with multiple steps, a seemingly intricate plot in the mind of a boy that would wear swimming trunks in the summer, just to skip the underwear. The plan: (1)take Lindsay for walk around duck pond in my neighborhood, (2)stop beneath willow tree that makes the most amazing sound in the wind, (3)stop walking, hold her hand, make eye contact, (4)say “Lindsay, these 2 months have been great”, (5)create an awkward pause, allowing her to make some sort of “aww” sound, and then (6), deliver the goods.

I didn’t know how to deliver the goods, or what the goods were for that matter, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. I deduced most of my conclusions from movies that my mother had on TV and hilariously coy conversations on Instant Messenger, never wanting to divulge that I had not yet taken part in this activity, while still desperately prodding for information.

The night had come, and was going perfect to plan. We took our walk, laughed some, and ended up beneath my favorite, peacefully percussive willow tree. I smiled, and then said my pre-rehearsed line: “Lindsay, these 2 months have been great”. If you recall from above, step 5 was supposed to be an “aww” or some variant of a content groan from Lindsay. There was no such thing. Instead there were quacks. Not from her of course, but from a pack of wild, mocking, enraged geese. The pack of geese charged at us as if they were invading a small country barbarian-style: loudly, broodishly, and at full speed. I panicked, squeezed in the world’s fastest first kiss, grabbed Lindsay’s hand and fled to safety.

Looking back, it is impressive more than anything that I squeezed a kiss in as we were under siege by an army of geese. Our relationship lasted a little while longer, and for some reason 11 years later I can’t even remember how she dumped me. This is the great thing about the early relationships we all experience: that cliché about “only remembering the good things” is entirely true. We learn our lessons, keep the good stuff, and move on. Lindsay made me just cool enough that a month later I started dating this ridiculously artsy girl who made me sculptures. No matter if you are 14 and innocently figuring out the wild world of dating, or 25 and contemplating what eternity with one person feels like, any relationship that makes us a better person is well worth it.

We strive for perfection in our benchmark moments, and yet we never forget the moments where something out of the ordinary thumps us on the head. It’s a subtle reminder from something bigger than all of us to not take it all so seriously. I love good stories too much for anything normal to ever happen to me. I was attacked by a pack of geese during my first kiss, and if you know me, that probably doesn’t surprise you at all.

choosing a baton.

When I was learning how to conduct my first baton felt perfect for me because I had no idea what a baton should feel like. It was light in my hand, creating a smooth curve between my thumb and forefinger. It was an innocent, youthful connection, evoking feelings that anything is possible and that making music is as simple as loving it. The baton was made of wood and had a vivid handle, hand painted in subtle shades of green, azure, and brownish orange. My colleagues and friends didn’t care for it because the smooth handle had a peculiar divot in it: a place where my middle finger could nestle up to the baton’s running fibers, drawing me closer. I never admitted this to my colleagues and friends but I loved this divot because it made the baton feel more like a timpani mallet, a far more familiar strip of mahogany in my hands at the time. The baton was youthful, naive, and because of these two descriptors it was also honest.

My second baton had a large, bulbous handle, and came to such a fine tip you would have thought it was a sharpened weapon. It was longer than my first baton and made of graphite instead of wood. On turning quick corners it buckled, shooting miniature vibrations beneath my fingernails. It was extremely heavy, making subtle moments awkward and burdensome. The baton was proud, assuming things about the musicians before it and taking more time to dance than to listen. It held a peculiar curse: when it intertwined with your finger tips you felt powerful but insecure all at once. It was a cloak that covered blemishes, a lightning rod in the hand of a meek man, a staff for a king unsure how to rule.

My third baton was given to me by an old conductor heading towards retirement, a shaman full of stories and wisdom. The baton felt perpetually dusty and worn, like his fingerprints had been permanently bestowed upon the egg-shaped handle. Finite chips and wounds ran down its sides, scars from thousands of measures, millions of notes. The baton had heard hours of beautiful music, but only knew how to convey its tale to the old man. It sat in my hand lifeless, a transplanted limb that was beautiful, but containing a different blood type. Its stories meant little to me because I knew I needed to learn these stories for myself, sometimes the hard way. It’s days of making music were done, which is quite alright, because the best listening occurs when we are motionless.

I want to listen with the innocence of the audience before me, the whimsical spark that tells us to believe in the impossible. I want to make music with the playful exuberance of a student, and with the familiarity that I have been here before but only momentarily. The most beautiful music is honest music, dripping with the tears of memories, the blood of sacrifice, and waters of redemption.

I’ve switched back to my first baton.